Understanding through visual supports
by Karen Mackie
When my son Jacob started school, he could not understand what was expected of him. He was also unable to express his frustration and confusion, so he would swipe the materials off his desk, knock over chairs, hit, grab, throw things, bang his head, and elope (run away). These behaviors were his “communication system.”
To address these behaviors and help Jacob feel successful, our family turned to visual supports. The goal was to help Jacob understand how he fit into a new situation, predict what is going to happen, and how he should respond.
A great example of an effective visual support is the social story. Based on the work of autism consultant Carol Gray, the visual support helped Jacob with his anxiety and fear of new people, places, and events. I create a social story not only to explain a new situation to Jacob but also to help him see all the steps and support he will have, from what he needs to do to how the situation will end. We read the story before we leave home, and Jacob takes the story with him. We have made social stories for a trip to the YMCA and an amusement park as well as for bloodwork and dental appointments, x-rays, and for wisdom teeth extraction.
To teach Jacob basic life skills, we use behavior cards. This visual support tells Jacob how to function in a classroom, at home, and in the community. Cards that depict waiting, taking turns, requesting a break, and getting help allowed us to teach these life skills to Jacob. Once Jacob learned these skills, his frustrated and confused behaviors were replaced with appropriate behavior.
When Jacob was younger, simple visual supports helped him to maintain focus and work through hours of therapy or a whole school day, to do simple tasks and to run routine errands (like grocery shopping).
As Jacob has gotten older and is spending more time in the community, safety has become a priority. But how do you teach expectations to someone going into an uncontrolled environment?
Some visual supports in the environment are designed to keep us safe, such as flashing red lights at an intersection. So, we have focused on identifying these visual supports before teaching a skill to Jacob. For example, look for the lines in a parking lot; they will show you where to walk so you’re not walking down the middle of a vehicle lane.
Visual schedules have been an essential piece for developing Jacob’s receptive language (in other words, the ability to understand language). A visual schedule pairs a picture and word to an activity, object, person, or event. A visual schedule can be made of objects, pictures, symbols, or words. It makes the spoken language real and visible, which is important to a visual learner like Jacob.
Because a visual schedule modifies the environment and guides Jacob through daily routine tasks, it allows for independence and creates motivation to get a job done. For completing a non-preferred activity, one of Jacob’s favorite activities is placed at the end of the schedule as a reward.
A variety of visual supports are combined with spoken, written, or symbolic language to make up a functional communication system. While the spoken, written, or symbolic language helps people express themselves, visual supports help an individual understand what is being said or expected.
Like a day planner to remind neurotypical people of each day’s tasks, Jacob’s calendar is a large part of his receptive language half of his functional communication system. It tells him the story of his day, week, month, year, and it can be manipulated and changed. It tells him who will be working with him, what appointments he needs to attend, what chores he must do, and what fun things are available. It turns abstract concepts (like “before,” “after,” “earlier,” and “later”) and makes them concrete by breaking down Jacob’s day into half-hour increments. Each half hour is designated with a task, appointment, errand, event, person, or chore.
Jacob’s stress about the unknown is relieved, and he’s happier and can focus on learning new tasks. His communication system has changed his environment from an incomprehensible mess into a logically structured system that Jacob can live in successfully.
Sun contributor Karen Mackie is a family support provider (FSP) in the Autism Delaware™ Kent County office and a longtime volunteer as well as the parent of a 17 year old on the autism spectrum.
This text was edited for consistency of language and message and appears in the autumn 2019 issue of the Autism Delaware quarterly newsletter, The Sun.